Fish cold, but stay warm and safe

Live bait is sometimes the perfect combination of a slow, natural presentation that will gets bites in cold weather. (Photo by Phillip Gentry)

Winter is one of the best times to fish anywhere in the Carolinas. The weather is more stable than during transitional seasons like spring and fall, and angling pressure and boat traffic are lower. Likewise, a number of fish species readily bite all winter.

Before you load up the yak and rods and head for the nearest water, consider a few things before you start trying to figure out a fishing pattern for what’s biting.

The biggest drawback to winter fishing is the temperature. Except for an occasional warming trend, its cold. But in today’s day and age of state-of-the-art cold weather apparel and gear, taking the winter off from fishing is a big mistake.

Great fishing is possible, but being comfortable a matter of preparation. Here are a few tips to get you on the right path.

Wear wool

The insulating factor of wool is unbeatable, even with some of today’s synthetic fabrics. Wool may be heavier, but it won’t adsorb water and gets the nod when it’s cold. Caps, socks, neck gaiters — anywhere you can put wool with the possible exception of long johns — is a sure way to stay warm. The best way to defeat the itchy feeling of wool underwear is to wear synthetic stuff below the waist and use wool as the second layer.

Get Neoprene

The same material that scuba divers wear underwater is readily available in many garments for above-water use. Neoprene pants, jackets, gloves and even boots are available. These materials are waterproof, very warm and, as a bonus, the air-encapsulation process used in creating neoprene also makes it highly buoyant, just in case.

Wear Your PFD

This should be year-round advice for kayak anglers, but is a necessity for winter kayak fishing. An auto-inflating PFD typically offers the most comfort, especially over several layers of clothing. Attach a plastic whistle to the front so you’ll have a way to signal for help should you wind up in the water, away from your kayak. Having a short, sharp knife that can also be attached to your PFD is a great idea if you need to cut rigging, rope or fishing line should you capsize and become entangled.

Weather watching

Planning your kayak fishing trip around the weather has two-fold benefits during the winter. It’s not unusual to have a moderate or even warm day in December. Warmer weather in the midst of cold weather can cut on the bite, just like fishing on a cool, overcast summer day. Also, check the wind speed. The more wind, the greater the threat of capsizing becomes. It’s also much colder, even on a moderate day, when the wind is blowing versus a calm wind day.

Change of clothes 

A change of clothes, stored in a dry bag, can be a lifesaver should you take a plunge in cold water. It’s also nice to have a dry towel to warm up your hands, face or arms during breaks in the fishing. Most anglers never consider using a fish towel any time of year, but having one in the winter can give your hands a break from handling cold, wet objects like paddles, rods, gear, and even fish.

Bring the heat

Gas or propane heating devices may not be practical for kayak angling unless you want to take a break and hit the bank for a spell to get warm. Another option is to use chemical heaters to warm extremities. Hand and foot warmers react to oxygen and begin a slow, steady heat release.

Tucked inside a pair of gloves, boots or inside a jacket, they can create warmth and help blood flow. A good place to look for these products is in the first-aid aisle of your grocery store or pharmacy. Several companies make chemical heating products complete with skin adhesives to stick to sore or injured areas. They work great for heating extremities as well.

Control moisture

It may sound strange to think about controlling moisture when the goal is to stay dry from outside water sources. The truth is, inside moisture — your body’s own perspiration — can make you the most uncomfortable. Layering up may feel great at daylight, but what happens when it’s time to haul the kayak several hundred feet to the water, paddle for a mile or so, or load/unload the boat from the vehicle? Strenuous exercise can make you sweat, and this moisture has nowhere to go if you’re bundled up.

As mentioned with the wool, consider wearing undergarments that will wick away moisture from your skin but not cause you to be cold. It’s also nice to layer up for cold early on in the trip and then shed some of those layers as the day wears on and temperatures begin to rise.

Winter fishing tips

While it’s good to be warm and comfortable on the water during the winter, it’s great to be warm, comfortable and catching fish. Here are a few winter-centric things to keep in mind when fishing in cooler water.

Slow down. Rather than casting and winding to keep your bait in motion and off the bottom, try tactics that focus on slower presentations. This includes drop-shotting, bottom-bouncing, jigging, and dead-sticking. 

Downsize baits. Some fishing may be tempted to eat one big bait in colder water, but most fishes’ metabolism slows down in winter. This means most fish will eat smaller baits and feed less often. To meet this need, try downsizing your baits. Instead of 4- and 5-inch artificial baits, switch to lighter tackle, smaller diameter line and 2- to 3-inch baits. This may require a little more finesse getting a fish to the boat, but it’s better that than not getting bites.

Live bait. When a fish’s metabolism slows down, often the best way to get a bite is by using something that looks, tastes, smells and acts like an easy meal. There is not better “easy meal” offering than a live bait presented directly to a fish’s face.

Best Bets


WHAT — Crappie

WHERE — High Rock Lake

HOW — Winter crappie love to bunch up around structure in big numbers during cold weather. Boat docks are some of the most-available and easy-to-fish structures. Look to the darkest, deepest areas under docks. Avoid getting on the dock; a kayak will allow you to get much closer than a larger boat. The smaller the jig the better. Some anglers prefer double jigs in 1/64-ounce on 4-pound test. Pay attention anywhere you get a bite as there are likely many more fish in close proximity.


INSIDER TIP — Bright, sunny days are better than overcast days. Even in winter, sunshine will push crappie deep into the darkest area of the dock. 


WHAT — Redfish

WHERE — Inshore waters around Beaufort. 

HOW — Shallow bays off secondary creeks provide cover from predators and warm quicker on sunny days. Redfish school tightly for protection but this also makes the entire school spooky. Watch for movement in clear water to give away the location of the school, then cast 1/8-ounce jigs paired with scented plastics ahead of the school. Sometimes not even moving the bait is the best way to get bit.


INSIDER TIP — Plan on going on a long paddle to search for redfish. Don’t waste time fishing blind until you locate a school of fish. Once a big school is located, you’ll have plenty of opportunity for fishing action.

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About Phillip Gentry 767 Articles
Phillip Gentry of Greenville, S.C., is host of “Upstate Outdoors,” a weekly radio show that can be heard on Saturdays at noon on WORD 106.3 FM.

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